Friday, June 19, 2015

Greetings from Puerto Rico!

San Juan is more humid than Houston.

Yes. You read that right. You can literally taste the seawater with every breath and I've been dripping in sweat since the second I stepped out of the airport. At least the food is good.

I'm here along with my parents and my son. Tomorrow we're going to spend a week cruising to the little island-nations to the seas east of here: St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Barbados, etc. We will spend another week at a timeshare here in San Juan when we return.

We've had this trip planned for a long while; needless to say I've been looking forward to it for months. Hopefully I'll have a nice writeup with a bunch of pictures later.

This is also the first time I've ever tried to write a blog entry on an iPad Mini. I don't think I'll be doing it again very often.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to combat local media overcoverage of minor weather events

The Houston region got its first taste of this year’s hurricane season yesterday, as Tropical Storm Bill made landfall. While any tropical weather event is to be taken seriously – there was legitimate concern that ground still saturated from recent storms might not be able to handle Bill’s rainfall – the storm’s actual effects turned out to be rather mild.

That didn’t stop the local television news media from milking Bill for all it was worth. If they were able to generate this much hype for a relatively minor tropical storm, I shudder to think what they’ll come up with when an actual category-three hurricane approaches later this summer.

Was the wall-to-wall coverage of this storm silly, excessive and unnecessary? Of course it was. Did KPRC really need to pre-empt Jimmy Fallon on Monday night to bring us inane and repetitive “team coverage” of people sitting in front of computers at Houston Transtar or bemused tourists on Galveston Island? Not really. Did KHOU really have to bring Dr. Neil Frank out of retirement to answer stupid questions about evacuations or send reporters to interview people riding the Bolivar Ferry? No.

But they did it anyway. This is what the local media does every time a tropical cyclone approaches. I’ve written about this before. They can’t help themselves; hurricanes are the raison d’etre of the local TV news.

The local media’s over-hype of storms like Bill is stupid, annoying and potentially lethal in that it desensitizes people to much more serious events that might occur later in the hurricane season. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to combat it: just quit watching their ridiculous coverage of the storm.

That’s it. Turn off the TV.

Let them know that you don’t care about the wanna-be surfers who went down to Galveston to take advantage of the slightly-higher-than-normal waves.

Let them know that the fact that they’ve brought in cots so the emergency operations folks in Brazoria County will have a place to sleep is of no concern to you.

Let them know that you think it’s stupid that they actually interviewed a grocery store manager regarding people buying all his drinking water. (Drinking water that people went out and hoarded because the local news media’s shrill coverage of this event spooked them, no doubt…)

Let them know that you don’t give a flip about the old toothless guy near Rollover Pass has decided not to evacuate. Let them know that you don’t want to see “viewer pictures and videos” of the storm.

Let them know that that you will not participate in the deification of the meteorologists that occurs every time these storms approach.

Let them know these things by not watching. Turn off the TV. Get your updates from the National Weather Service’s website, or Eric Berger’s blog.

When the local TV producers see their ratings drop, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the message. They’ll realize that people are sick and tired of their ridiculous, panicky, overblown coverage of these storm events and begin treating them with the sane, level-headed and useful coverage they really deserve.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the deadly catastrophe that was the Rita Evacuation – an event driven almost entirely by local media hyperbole – we need to get the message to the local TV news that we don’t appreciate their unhelpful, unnecessary and embarrassing sensationalism.

We can do that by not watching.

John Nova Lomax's take on the hype is a must-read.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Alabama-Birmingham resurrects its football program

The Blazers might be coming back from the dead!
At a press conference Monday evening, president Ray Watts and athletic director Mark Ingram confirmed that the football Blazers will indeed be returning to the university.  It was Watts’ controversial decision to axe the football program in the first place last December.

When asked about the about-face, Watts stated that he didn’t want to dwell on the past.

“I don’t want pursue a lot of time looking back. … [It’s time for] healing and moving ahead,” Watts said in a press conference that essentially raised more questions than provided answers, adding in what will be a controversial comment that there was no “tangible” support financially when the initial decision was made.
So how were the financial problems that doomed UAB's football program last fall resolved?
Watts explained to the Associated Press prior to the press conference that his reversal came after spending the weekend in meetings with supporters of UAB football.  According to the president, those supporters have agreed to cover the cost of a projected $17 million-plus deficit over the next five years. Watts added that supporters “raised about 10 percent of the estimated $12.5 million- $14.5 million needed for a turf practice field and new fieldhouse,” the AP wrote.

“Our students, our alumni, the city of Birmingham and now many community members have stepped up with commitments to cover that $17.2 million operational deficit,” Watts said. “That’s why we’re in a position today to make this decision.”
There are certain fundraising deadlines for bringing football back, but Watts declined to get into on specifics on that subject or the subject of just when the Blazers will begin play anew.
Assuming those fundraising deadlines are met, the Blazers will probably resume playing football in the fall of 2016, as a member of Conference USA. Left unanswered is how UAB's administrators, fans and boosters will continue to push back against the University of Alabama System Board of Trustee's alleged hostility towards UAB's football program, although it's clear that a groundswell of popular as well as political support is what led to its reinstatement.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach provides an excellent FAQ of the timeline for bringing back to life UAB's football program. FiveThirtyEight's David Goldenberg looks inside the competing studies that killed, and then brought back to life, the UAB program.

For what it's worth, I think the team's nickname should be changed from the Blazers to the Zombies.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What not to tell your employees during a weather emergency

Everybody has stories about last week's devastating floods, so here's one worth sharing. This is an actual text message that a local employer sent out to staff via an alert system Tuesday morning:
I'm aware that many of you are having weather related issues and it's affecting your ability to get to work on time. The most critical thing is your safety. If you can make it safely, please come to work. I would expect late arrivals for many. Otherwise I understand if you need an unscheduled vacation day.
I am obviously not going to identify the employer who sent this text or reveal how I learned about it. I just felt that this utterly tone-deaf message was worth sharing as an example of how not to manage one's employees in the event of a crisis.

Let's recap: Houston just experienced its most significant weather event since Hurricane Ike, with some parts of the city receiving over ten inches of rain in a matter of a few hours. Streets and freeways are flooded. METRO has suspended public transportation services, and HISD and other school districts have cancelled classes. Local elected officials have urged people to stay home.

Yet the folks who work for this particular employer are being told that they either need to show up to work or use a vacation day, i.e., one of those relatively scarce days that people like to use for, well, actual vacations.

Maybe this particular employer does not have the means to compensate absences caused by bad weather. And it is worth noting that at least these employees will be paid, even if it's through vacation time; there are a lot of hourly-wage workers who couldn't make it into work last Tuesday and won't receive any wages at all for that day.

But all that misses the point, which is the astonishing insensitivity of this message. Whomever wrote it not only seemed to have no empathy towards the plight of his or her employees (boilerplate blather about "safety" aside), but even managed to make the situation about him or herself: "I would expect" people to arrive late; "I understand" if people have to take a vacation day because the kids are at home, the buses aren't running and the mayor told people to stay off the streets.

And that's just for the folks who are otherwise safe at home. Imagine if you were standing in foot-deep water inside your home, or had to abandon your car in high water, and you received that text!

Instead of sending out such an uncompassionate message, why not at least acknowledge the situation at hand (flooded freeways, kids home from school, no local or park-and-ride buses) and express hope that nobody suffered any loss? Why not suggest that people try to work from home, if they're able to do so? And why mention anything about using an "unscheduled vacation day" at all? Just say something like "we will determine how to address your timesheet tomorrow" and leave it there.

Unfortunately, this is just another example of the fact that just because somebody is in a management position doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to "manage."

Oh, and one more thing about this text: it was sent at 7:55 in the morning.

The Rockets end the season on a (mostly) high note

The Rockets' comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers in game five of the second round of the playoff was utterly amazing: down by 19 points, and staring elimination in the face, they rallied to win that game, as well as the next two games, to become only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a three-game series deficit to win.

That put the Rockets into the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1997, where they once again found themselves down three games to the Golden State Warriors. Last Monday, once again staring elimination in the face, the Rockets rallied to win. Would they be able to pull off the improbable one more time and make it to the NBA Finals? On the 20th anniversary of the franchise's amazing 1995 championship run, no less?

Alas, no.

It's easy to play the "what if" game and wonder what could have been: if Patrick Beverly and Donatas Motiejunas had been healthy, if Dwight Howard had been better at the free-throw line, if John Harden had been less prone to turn the ball over...

It doesn't matter. The Rockets had a good season which ended at the hands of the best team in the NBA (I will be very surprised if the Warriors do not decisively defeat the Cavaliers in the Finals). After years and years of postseason disappointment - between the 1997 season and this one, the Rockets had only won one playoff series - the team finally lived up to their potential and made a deep run into the playoffs.

Hopefully they can take that next step in the 2016 playoffs.

Jeff Balke lists reasons for optimism. Matt Jackson ponders the franchise's offseason activity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Deluge of 2015

I'm a native Houstonian, so I've seen a lot of heavy rain and flooding events over the years. But I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything quite like Monday night's deluge.
During the rain’s peak Monday night, Houston received nearly an inch of rainfall in just five minutes, and racked up nearly a foot in less than a day. The flooding in Houston was comparable to a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane. Water levels along Buffalo Bayou, which runs through downtown, eclipsed the level seen during Hurricane Ike in 2008, and was just shy of flooding during Tropical Storm Allison—the worst flood in Houston history—which dawdled over the city for six days in 2001 and inundated 70,000 houses.
(Full disclosure: I was living in Denton when Tropical Storm Allison occurred.)

I'm not sure how much rain I got at my house, but according to the rain gauge closest to my house, about 7 3/4 inches of rain fell between 8 pm Monday and 4 am Tuesday. It was an incredible amount of precipitation over a short period of time, and needless to say the City of Bellaire's drainage infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed.

My street flooded first. Then the water crept up to the sidewalks, then up to my yard, and eventually to my front porch. The threshold of my front door was a few inches higher than that, so I wasn't too worried about water getting into the house. But as the downpour continued unabated, the thought did cross my mind...

Here are some pictures I took of my front yard at about 1 am Tuesday. My camera's flash was useless (the light simply reflected off of the raindrops and obscured everything), so I took long exposure photos without the help of a tripod, which is why they're blurry. But these shots nevertheless provide a good idea of just how inundated my street became.

So much rain had fallen by the time I took these pictures that the waterline stretched uninterrupted from my doorstep to the doorsteps of my neighbors across the street.

You can see my little gardens in front of my neighbor's kid's blue truck and a few blades of grass sticking out from the water near the center of this picture. Otherwise my front lawn was completely underwater.

I caught a lightning strike while the shutter was open, which is why this picture is comparatively bright. The bottom of my tires are underwater, but thankfully the water never made it to my doors. Can't say the same for my neighbor's kid's blue truck, however; his floorboards got soaked.

When the rains stopped and daylight arrived, I stepped outside to take a couple more pictures. The water had begun to drain off by then, but it woulds still be a few more hours before the street was passable and I could make it in to work.

The good news is that the engine of neighbor's kid's blue truck apparently did not suffer any damage; the truck is still drivable. It remains to be seen what kind of harm the floodwaters did to my little gardens. That black thing at the left of the picture is somebody's water meter cover. It floated there and does not belong to anybody on my street.

My landlord contacted me Tuesday morning to make sure the house did not flood, and she was amazed yet relieved when I told her that the floodwaters managed to stay a few inches short of the front door. I didn't ask her if she had flood insurance; for what it's worth my neighborhood is in FEMA Zone "X" (the "500 year" floodplain) and flood insurance is not mandatory.

While my neighbors and I survived the flood unscathed, it's worth remembering that a lot of people didn't. The Chronicle's Eric Berger explains the forces that came together to create this mess.

And there's still more rain in the forecast.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rockets win first postseason series since 2009

And they did it against the hated Dallas Mavericks, no less...

It's been 20 years since the Rockets' last NBA championship, and while as a fan I'd love to see them win it all again this season, I just don't see that happening. The team has suffered some key injuries, they collectively aren't great at the free throw line, they don't match up well with either of their possible second round opponents (LA Clippers or San Antonio Spurs), and one gets the feeling that this is just Golden State's year anyway.

Still, this is a team that is fun to watch, it's good to see the local team have some success in the postseason once again, and hey... anything can happen in the postseason, right?

Speaking of that 1995 championship: do yourself a favor and read the Houston Press's wonderful oral history of that amazing playoff run.

Some thoughts about TxDOT's plans for I-45 North

Last night I attended an open house at the HCC Central Campus regarding the Texas Department of Transportation's grand plans for Interstate 45 around and north of downtown Houston. This ambitious endeavor would re-route I-45 to the east and north of downtown, demolish the Pierce Elevated, put the freeway in a trench (possibly topped by green space) between downtown and 610, and massively widen the freeway between 610 and Beltway 8. Some thoughts:

This project, if it happens, will be the biggest single public works project in Houston's history. Dredging the ship channel, building the Astrodome, creating the NASA Johnson Space Center... Those are all iconic public works milestones in this city's history. But in terms of sheer cost and impact, they won't compare to this one. The cost - last night a TxDOT engineer told me that the estimated price tag for the entire project is "over six billion dollars" - dwarfs the cost of recent freeway rebuilds like the Katy or the Northwest. And the project will completely alter Houston's urban landscape around, and to the north of, downtown.

                                                                   Texas Department of Transportation
The reconstruction of I-45 won't just affect I-45. The project's limits extend all the way past downtown to I-69/US-59 in the Montrose area, where the Spur 527 split occurs. As anybody who has traveled through the "Montrose Trench" knows, this is a huge bottleneck in the eastbound/northbound direction at all hours of the day, as six lanes of traffic are forced down to three. This project would extend the trench to 288 and add lanes, thereby easing the bottleneck. The 69/59 intersection with 288 will also be completely rebuilt, as will the entirely of 69/59 east of downtown and I-10 north of it.

The over-the-freeway parks being proposed for 45 between downtown and the loop and for 45 east of downtown (where it would run concurrently with 69/59) need to happen. They are currently not included in project cost, but they would be wonderful urban amenities that would reconnect neighborhoods, boost surrounding property values and enhance the city's quality of life. For a good idea of what these green spaces could look like and how they could be used, take a look at Margaret T. Hance Park over I-10 in Phoenix, Freeway Park over I-5 in Seattle, Lake Place and Leif Erikson Parks over I-35 in Duluth, or the new Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas.

The fact that below-grade freeways sometimes flood is a feature, not a bug. Yes, this project is going to put a big chunk of Houston's inside-the-loop freeway network below grade. And yes, these freeway trenches will occasionally flood. However, by acting as temporary floodwater retention, these trenches will help to prevent surrounding neighborhoods from flooding during major rain events. Sure, there is the inconvenience of these freeways being closed (and the cost of a few cars being flooded out, for people dumb enough to drive into rising water), but it is exponentially less disruptive or costly than entire neighborhoods, houses, businesses, etc. being destroyed by floodwater. This is something I wish more people would understand. 

I admit it: I'll miss the Pierce Elevated. Sure, it's constantly congested and it serves as a physical as well as psychological barrier between downtown and Midtown. But I'll miss the views it provides as it swoops past all those skyscrapers on its west and south ends. Oh, and while I love the idea of the Pierce Sky Park - Houston's answer to New York City's High Line - I think pressure from real estate and developer interests to convert what is now the Pierce Elevated into developable property is going to prevent that from becoming a reality.

Right-of-way requirements are going to cause significant residential and business displacement. On the east side of downtown alone, popular restaurants like Kim Son and Huynh, Dynamo fan hangouts like Little Woodrow's, and residential complexes like the Lofts at the Ballpark and the Clayton Homes housing project will have to be demolished. And don't even get me started on all the businesses that will need to be taken in order to widen I-45 between 610 and Beltway 8. Obviously, a huge percentage of the "over six billion dollar" cost of this project will be dedicated to right-of-way acquisition, as the demand for land is so enormous. TxDOT will provide relocation assistance, but this project is still going to cause a lot of inconvenience for a lot of people.

Oh, and it's going to take many, many years for the entire project to be completed, as well.  I'm thinking a decade, give or take a few years. Construction will likely occur in stages, so that only one area of town is torn up and rebuilt at a time. I think it will be worth it once it's all complete, but there's a lot of aggravating and disrupting construction between now and then.

This project still has a few missing pieces, especially in terms of transit connectivity. There needs to be a connection from the 288 managed lanes (that are supposed to get underway soon) to the I-45 managed lanes proposed as part of this project, so that people who live in The Woodlands can get to their jobs in the Texas Medical Center or people who live in Pearland can get to their jobs at ExxonMobil's Springwoods campus. Right now, all of these managed lanes lead directly into downtown, even though a significant number of commuters (be they in cars, vanpools, or METRO and Woodlands Express buses) would likely want to use these hybrid HOV/toll lanes to go to destinations other than downtown. Also, the reconstruction of I-69/US-59 from the spur to 288 is a perfect opportunity to incorporate a portion of the fabled University Line light rail which would connect midtown with The University of Houston: since there is going to be right-of-way acquisition and construction in that corridor anyway, why not lay down tracks parallel to 69/59 between Main Street and the Alabama Street bridge?

A lot of work has gone into the current design, but it is not final. This project is not yet set in stone concrete; there's still a lot of design work to be done, and then of course there is the small detail as to where to find the "over six billion dollars" to pay for this. It's probably going to be at least five years before construction begins in earnest, so there's still time to get things right. TxDOT is soliciting comments until May 31st, 2015. Feel free to add your voice to the discussion.

The project website (including massive schematic drawings in all their take-forever-to-download glory) is here. Kuff and Swamplot have further discussion.

UH names its new Athletics Director

They didn't have to look very far to find him:
Hunter Yurachek has been named vice president for intercollegiate athletics and athletic director at the University of Houston, the school announced Tuesday.

Yurachek replaces Mack Rhoades, who announced in March he was leaving to become the new AD at Missouri.

"Hunter Yurachek is the best leader and administrator for where we are, and where we are going," UH president Renu Khator said. "He brings both a fresh perspective and a keen understanding of our strengths and opportunities."

Yurachek has spent the past 14 months serving as UH's associate vice president and chief operating officer for intercollegiate athletics, the No. 2 official in the athletic department.

"This is an exciting time to be at the University of Houston, and I embrace the challenge of leading our athletics program to the next level." Yurachek said.
Some UH fans I know are underwhelmed by this hire. They think that Houston should have found a "name" AD, or at least hired somebody with strong connections to the "Power 5" conferences that Houston wants to join. Others think that Yuraheck is going to be little more than a "yes man" for President Renu Khator and Chairman of the Board of Regents Tillman Fertitta. Still other UH fans seem to be happy with this hire, citing Yurachek's accomplishments as AD at Coastal Carolina - he was named the Football Championship Subdivision athletic director of the year in 2013-14 - and the fact that he has already had a successful tenure as second-in-command at Houston:
At UH, Yurachek has been responsible for the day-to-day oversight of UH's athletic program that comprises 17 varsity sports, more than 400 student athletes, 175 employees and a $40 million-plus operational budget.

Yurachek served as chair for a campus steering committee to oversee the grand opening of $120 million TDECU Stadium last August and helped secure a 10-year, $15 million naming rights deal for the on-campus football stadium. He also was liaison with the architectural design firm on the Cougars' $25 million basketball development facility that opens this summer and oversaw the development of $1 million in upgrades to the men's and women's basketball locker rooms at Hofheinz Pavilion and the Athletics/Alumni Center, including the addition of a student-athlete nutrition center Cougar Café.

Yurachek was also part of the search committee to hire football coach Tom Herman and men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and women's basketball coach Ronald Hughey.
Which makes me wonder: while Yurachek was doing all this work, what was Mack Rhoades doing?

Snark aside, Yurachek has a lot of work ahead of him: he needs to grow the season ticket base for football, get locals interested in basketball, renovate Hofheinz Pavilion, and make the Cougar program attractive to a P5 conference by the time the next round of conference realignment occurs. He also needs to raise funds, groom donors, and ensure that players graduate. Oh yeah, the programs (at least the revenue ones) need to win, as well.

Best of luck, Hunter!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

United to serve free drinks on long-haul flights

I regularly use this blog to beat up on United Airlines, so I should be fair and give them credit when they do something good for their passengers:
United Airlines passengers will no longer have to reach for their wallets if they ask for wine or beer on long-haul international flights. Not even in economy.

United says it will upgrade the food in its economy cabin, too, offering "a hearty three-course service" that will remain complimentary. Beyond that, the carrier will start selling the same light snacks that it already offers on its domestic flights.

The changes begin June 1, covering United's long-haul flights between the United States and Europe and Asia. They'll also include United flights between the U.S. and Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Many long-haul passengers, myself included, like to have a couple of adult beverages in-flight because it relaxes and makes the flight a bit more bearable. So why is United abandoning what is obviously a lucrative source of revenue?
The return of free drinks and the upgraded meal service on the long international routes will likely be welcomed by United's economy customers. But the effort also comes as United faces stronger competitors, both in the U.S. and abroad.

American and Delta already offer complimentary wine and beer in the economy cabins of their comparable long-haul routes. So do many foreign carriers that fly to the USA, including Germany's Lufthansa, Japan's All Nippon Airways and Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, calls United's latest changes a needed first step in bringing United into line with other global carriers.

"Their alliance partners – as well as competitors – offer an open bar," Harteveldt says. "It's a small thing, but United doesn't want to lose a sale just because they're charging people for drinks in economy and other airlines are not."
This new policy, which begins June 1st, applies to beer and wine but apparently not hard liquor. And again, it only applies to transcontinental international flights, so if you're flying to Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador or even Hawaii, you'll still have to pay up.

Still, it's a step in the right direction for United. Cheers!